When someone is diagnosed with cancer, relatives and friends are often the forgotten ones. Yet, they are also affected by the disease, may require help to cope, but may themselves think that they are not as deserving and important as the person with cancer.
Often family and friends neglect their own well-being, when, understandably so, a greater focus is on the care for the person with cancer. You may even feel guilty doing something you enjoy, or carrying on with some personal routines like going to work, hobbies and socialising.
If someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer, this will affect you. You, too, may undergo a life-changing experience and find yourself on your own unique cancer journey. You may have been treated for cancer in the past, have already lost loved ones or are afraid of getting cancer yourself.
The impact on family and friends can vary and be long-lasting:
Economic: You can experience financial difficulties, with extra medical, care and associated expenses. If the person diagnosed with cancer has to stop working or dies, this may lead to a reduction in household income and threaten mortgage or rent payments, school fees and more.
Work: Employers may be more or less accommodating when you require time off or more flexible working hours.
Social: Friends and relatives may be unhelpful, and withdraw from you and a situation in which (for whatever reason) they cannot or do not want to be more actively involved.
Relational: You may find it difficult to make time for others or to be emotionally available. This can lead to friction and difficulties where others depend on you (e.g. children) or are less understanding of what you might be going through.
Spiritual: You may experience a crisis of belief and question why your relative or friend was not ‘spared’. Indeed, you may ask why you were not spared and may find it difficult to get a sufficient level of spiritual energy from within.
Physical: You may develop new or draw on existing coping mechanisms, which in the long-run may be unhelpful and lead to new problems: eating too much or too little, smoking, drinking, drugs, exercising too little or too much and such like.
Last but not least, the emotional impact of cancer on family and friends is not to be underestimated. Common feelings are:
- Helplessness – There is nothing I can do to make it better, or control the situation.
- Survivor’s guilt – Why not me?
- Feeling left out and isolated – When the main focus of others and medical staff seems to be on the person with cancer.
- Disbelief – When will I wake up from this nightmare?
- Bereavement and loss – Grieving for the other, for life and the relationship the way you knew it.
- Anger – Why is this happening to us? Why now? Why doesn’t anyone do something? You may also find yourself at the receiving end of anger and irritability by the person with cancer.
- Resentment – You were not meant to live your life like this. You were not meant to lose a loved one. You may also feel resentment towards the person with cancer – for getting it and for not fighting harder against it.
- Uncertainty and fear – Over cancer treatment, the future, your ability to cope.
- Blame – Was it their lifestyle, you, others who contributed to it?
- Being passive – You just want it all to go away.
- Feeling depressed and lacking motivation – You feel overwhelmed with no clear way out.
Cancer counselling and therapeutic support for relatives and friends can assist in dealing with such difficult experiences and emotions. Over time this can help lighten the load, rebuild emotional energies and help you explore choices available at this difficult time.
Different people opt for support at different times: at diagnosis, during treatment, to help prepare towards the death of a loved one, or much later, when the person with cancer may be well into remission, and there appears to be more time and space to start caring for oneself.
Cancer is not a straight line, and it can change your life forever – even if you are not the one with the illness.